China Steps Up In The Drone Market, Practices In African War Zone

By Staff Published: August 11, 2015, 3:33 pm
China CH-3 droneChina CH-3 drone, popsci.com

From TheDailyBeast. Story by David Axe.

The U.S. is still by far the world’s leader in the field of military drones, with hundreds of high-tech, missile- and bomb-armed robot aircraft and thousands of smaller, unarmed models deployed across the planet.

But China is catching up fast. And now we can confirm that Beijing’s remote-controlled warplanes have had their combat debut—in a seemingly unlikely place. A social media post seems to verify what observers have suspected since January: China’s killer robots are at war in Nigeria, apparently helping Abuja’s military battle the deadly Boko Haram extremist group, which controls much of Northeastern Nigeria and has kidnapped and enslaved hundreds of girls.

The first evidence that the Nigerian air force had gotten its hands on Chinese-made unmanned aerial vehicles came on Jan. 27, when Twitter users in Nigeria’s Borno state, in the war-torn northeast, posted photos of what appeared to be a crashed drone.

And not just any drone. The wreckage matched the profile of a CH-3…“a capable system. Not cutting edge, but capable,” according to Peter W. Singer, a drone expert at the New America Foundation and the author of several books, including the newly-released “Ghost Fleet.”

Most surprisingly, the crashed drone in Borno was packing a pair of what looked like AR-1 air-to-ground missiles under its wings. The January Tweets were the first indication ever that armed Chinese drones had flown in combat. America’s own unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been flying strike missions since late 2001.

Some U.S. officials worry that Chinese drones could beat out American models on the world market and give authoritarian regimes and U.S. rivals access to the same high-tech capabilities that Washington would prefer to belong only to America’s closest allies.

“China is advancing its development and employment of UAVs,” the Pentagon concluded in the latest edition of its official report on Chinese military capabilities. “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023.”

The RAND Corporation, a California think tank with close ties to the U.S. Air Force, warned in that the spread of Chinese drones “could have worrisome implications for U.S.”

But in Nigeria, Chinese missile-drones are apparently helping the government beat a militant slavery ring that the U.S. also wants to defeat. And while the Nigeria war zone gave Beijing’s UAVs their first shot at combat, there are sure to be many more opportunities for robotic warfare in coming years. “China is becoming one of world’s bigger producers and exporters of drones,” Singer said, “so we shouldn’t be surprised to see its systems popping up in more and more war zones around the world.”

Read more at TheDailyBeast.

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